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Iran Grants Reactor Access to IAEA

Peter Crail

Iran last month accepted long-standing requests by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for greater access to two key nuclear facilities, diplomatic sources said in August. The move appears to represent a shift in Iran’s willingness to cooperate with the agency, which has expressed increasing concern with Tehran’s lack of transparency on certain activities.

Tehran allowed IAEA inspectors to visit its heavy-water nuclear reactor under construction at Arak, the first such visit in nearly a year. After being barred from the reactor last fall, the agency was forced to rely on satellite imagery. The completion of the reactor containment structure and roofing over other buildings soon made that monitoring ineffective.

A senior UN official said in February that early access to the reactor is necessary to ensure that there is “no possible clandestine exit” built into the reactor to allow the diversion of plutonium. (See ACT, March 2009.) The reactor is estimated to be capable of producing about 9 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough for up to two nuclear weapons. According to senior UN officials, construction is to be finished in 2011, and the reactor is expected to come online in 2013. (See ACT, October 2008.)

Iran also reached an agreement with the IAEA to expand monitoring at its commercial-scale uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. For the last several months, the IAEA has held discussions with Iran regarding improvements in the agency’s monitoring activities at the facility in light of Iran’s expansion of the plant.

A June IAEA report said that such improvements are required “for the agency to continue to fully meet its safeguards objectives.” At that time, Iran was operating about 7,200 centrifuges; it has continued to install additional machines since then.

Tehran’s shift comes after it appointed Ali Akbar Salehi, a former envoy to the IAEA, to head the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which oversees Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Salehi replaces Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, who headed the organization for the past 12 years and resigned in July. Aghazadeh was a long-time associate of former Iranian Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who ran against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during Iran’s June 12 election. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, but the election was followed by widespread protests based on charges of electoral fraud. The result is still in dispute.

Ahmadinejad was inaugurated for a second term Aug. 3. Iran’s constitution limits presidents to two consecutive four-year terms, although they can run for additional nonconsecutive terms.

Tehran’s move also comes about a month before the Group of Eight (G-8) major industrialized nations review their approach to Iran’s nuclear program. The G-8 issued a statement July 8 indicating that such a review would take place during the Sept. 24-25 summit meeting in Pittsburgh of the world’s Group of 20 largest economies.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said July 8 that the world powers deferred any decisions on more punitive measures until that time. “We made an effort to agree not to strengthen sanctions straightaway in order to bring everyone on board. The more reserved amongst us agreed that Pittsburgh was the time for decisions,” he said.

Iranian officials have suggested that Tehran would not engage in talks by that date. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told reporters Aug. 10, “We are not against negotiations, but we will not allow world powers to pressure us with deadlines.”